Jack Antonoff is famous now for his work as the guitarist of the platinum-selling, Grammy-winning band fun. and his high-profile relationship with Girls creator Lena Dunham, but he's been working on the margins of the record industry since he was a teenager as the frontman of the New Jersey band Steel Train. He's about to step back into the spotlight this year as the frontman of Bleachers, a new band that takes the big emotions and classic songwriting style of fun. into a more electronic direction.
Bleachers' first single, "I Wanna Get Better," is out now, and their debut album is set to come out sometime later this spring. BuzzFeed caught up with Antonoff to chat about the origin of this new project, his collaboration with synth-pop pioneer Vince Clarke, his suburban roots, and why he works hard to avoid the restrained, uptight sound of contemporary indie rock.
The common thread between Bleachers and fun. is that you're really going all the way, and it's very bombastic and not holding much back. Why do you think other bands back away from that?
I think a lot of people now are inherently apologetic because of the things we grew up with in the '90s, and we saw rock music go from the most beautiful, amazing, culture-changing thing to, like, rap metal. The world of indie and rock music became very apologetic, and no one's trying to be too good and they're always trying to hold it back either with the songs or the production. No one wants to be quote-unquote "obvious." But, like, everyone references Paul Simon, and Fleetwood Mac has become a huge indie reference nowadays, but that's all bullshit because the most important part of that reference is not the dry snare drum, it's the unbelievably classic songs and production.
After rap metal in the late '90s, there was this split of mainstream and indie and rock, like they couldn't coexist. But I grew up when The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam and Nirvana were all mainstream, but they were also really good. I'd much rather be a part of mainstream culture than be a part of my own culture and have it be not…all the way.
I grew up never really being embraced by any scene; I was never in a hip band growing up, though I was touring and touring, and I was always just on the outside. That's how all the guys in fun. were. I'm not tied to anything, I'm just trying to make the best shit, and I don't have to worry about some community of people saying, "You used to be so restrained and cool." But what I think is cool is next-level stuff, not easy listening. God, just shoot me the day I start making music you can just put on in the car and have a conversation over it. That's not what I want to listen to. I want to listen to the stuff that makes me want to cry or have some kind of huge emotion.
Do you think that's part of why fun. really connected with people, that lack of apologizing for being big and emotional?
I think that whole unapologetic energy — everyone claims to have it, but I think it was the combination of having that and also backing it up with the music and production and songs. I care so much about the audience, I care so much about the work. We weren't going to be like, "We're different and unapologetic," and then release whatever shit. I think that's what happens with a lot of music. The fun. record and this Bleachers record, we worked on them and worked on them.
There's a very suburban vibe in your Bleachers music. How did coming from the suburbs influence your music?
The suburbs are so important. I grew up right outside New York City in New Jersey, and there's something very real about that, this feeling of looking in the window of this party but you're not invited. That's how I grew up, both in the way I was treated and how it was geographically. You're not in the center of it, you have to make your own fun, you have to try to be better. I went to high school in New York City for the last two years, and all the kids in my school grew up in New York and they didn't give a shit because they'd seen all the bands, done all the drugs, seen all the films, and done everything by the time they were 12 and we so over it. By the time I got there, my mind was blown by the city and I desperately wanted to live up to it and be interesting. I felt like this outcast in Jersey, and it's this feeling that's never gone away. I feel connected to that, and connected to the suburbs, and this connection to people who grew up in that environment. It's good for epic, inspirational music.
Before you were in fun., you were the frontman of the band Steel Train for many years. Why did you decide to start Bleachers rather than return to Steel Train?
I like the idea of a new beginning, and with a band, everything is in the context of what the band has done and past records, etc. I was making this whole new body of work and didn't want to carry any baggage from the past. The easy answer to your question is that it just felt like a different thing and connecting it to something else would've felt unnecessary or unfair.
What was the starting point for this new music?
It's hard to pinpoint that because it was always evolving and changing. Really, this was just me working in hotels, studios, whatever, and it all happened slowly from when I was just working to work, and then it turning into real songs. I was in the studio with producers, and then back in hotels, and then putting together a live band. I look back on this stuff and I don't know how it all happened, which might be a sorta obnoxious and stupid answer, but I don't think too far into the future. There was no master plan, just me working on music when I felt compelled to, and now there's this album.
How did Vince Clarke from Erasure get involved with this?
Someone I work with gave me Vince's email two years ago, but I was too scared to email him. I don't even know what the email would've been about, just "heeeyyy, I'm your biggest fan!" There's nothing to say. John Hill and I were working on the Bleachers album and were pretty far into it, and we were using Vince as a huge reference point. Like, modern pop music should just write Vince a check for like a billion dollars for ripping him off all day long. Every synth sound, all the low end, that's all stuff Vince created with Yaz, Depeche Mode, and Erasure. It all sounded so much better when he did it. There were those references we wanted to touch on, and I thought, I've never met or talked to Vince, but I have his email and maybe I should reach out to him to work on it, and he said yes. It's very rare to work with the people who inspire you to make music in the first place.
How do you balance out the desire to draw on the past with wanting to make something that feels fresh and current?
It's all in the songwriting. To me, songwriting should always be classic. Great songs are great songs, and there's no difference between the greatest Kanye songs and the greatest Beatles songs, whoever. But the production, the way you present it, that's where you can push things forward. It was very literal when I was working in the studio, like the song would have an '80s John Hughes movie feel, but we didn't want it to seem nostalgic and retro so I'd program the beat on it, or throw in some weird samples, or put sounds through filters that didn't exist then. It comes out sounding like nothing you've ever heard. We made a concentrated effort to push things so nothing else sounded like it.